Film as a Subversive Art
by Scott MacDonald
Half a generation ago, when I was a graduate student (during the 1960s), there seemed to be a reasonably clear distinction between a doctoral dissertation, the book-length study of a particular subject required of those who want to earn their Ph.D., and a book. The dissertation was where the graduate student proved that he/she knew the field and was capable of conducting and reporting on research that would add to the general awareness of the chosen subject area. A scholarly book, which might be a revision of the dissertation, was where the young scholar eliminated those dimensions of the dissertation required to prove the author’s intelligence and breadth of reading to specialists in the same field, and made contact with a larger public – a potential audience of intelligent individuals both inside and outside academe who were interested in the young scholar’s topic.
During the past half-century, this distinction seems to have disappeared. In too many cases these days, doctoral dissertations on cinema, with seemingly only minor changes, find their way to bookstores, where unwary potential readers can hardly fail to be frustrated by the nature of the communication that occurs in so many of these tomes, which all too often function like the gates in a gated community. Unless the reader has spent a good portion of a lifetime reading the same set of theoretical texts as the authors and developing the particular academic vocabularies the authors have become familiar with during their several years of graduate work, these studies are sure to be confusing, and sometimes even incomprehensible, without sustained study.
The result of our loss of the distinction between dissertation and book is that the world of serious scholarship and the world outside academe make a good bit less contact than they should. Academics often look with impotent puzzlement at a society seemingly addicted to the most absurd notions; and those outside academe see the work of scholars, at least in the humanities and the arts, as of no practical value or importance and of no interest to anyone outside the inner circle of scholars and would-be scholars – a lose-lose situation for both academe and the public at large.
Most of my film education has come inside movie theaters and screening rooms, and from books that were written either before cinema became a full-fledged part of the academy or from a position outside the academy, books that function not simply to demonstrate the complexity of the research that went into them or the theoretical IQ of the author, but to introduce a broad range of readers to a more complete sense of film history and to instigate a deeper awareness of how cinema can function productively and progressively within society as a whole. Amos Vogel’s Film as a Subversive Art, originally published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in the United Kingdom and by Random House in the United States, in 1974, is among the most significant achievements of this more communicative, democratic form of film scholarship. After three decades, it remains as engaging as it ever was. Indeed, the passage of time may have made it a more valuable and important study than it was when it first appeared.
Film as a Subversive Art was part of a triumvirate of books published in the early 1970s that offered insight into the flood of cinema (film, video, multi-media) that had washed across modern society during the late 1960s and early 1970s. P. Adams Sitney’s Visionary Film (New York: Oxford University Press) appeared the same year as Vogel’s book; both followed Gene Youngblood’s Expanded Cinema (New York: Dutton, 1970). Each of these breakthrough volumes was a detailed report on its author’s exploration of a particular dimension of modern independent cinema; each was meant to instigate larger audiences for the remarkable accomplishments of media artists; and each grew out of a belief in the potential of modern media to provide society with enlightening, even transformative, experiences. Of the three books, Film as a Subversive Art remains the most accessible and, formally, the most remarkable – as well as the most revealing of the personal and professional history that produced it.
In a sense, Vogel’s magnum opus was a final report on his efforts on behalf of independent cinema at Cinema 16, the film society he and his wife Marcia founded in 1947 (Film As a Subversive Art is dedicated “To Marcia, Steven, Loring [Vogel’s two sons] – and Cinema 16”). Many of those who read the first edition of the book – I include myself here – knew nothing of Cinema 16, but without the film society there could have been no book. Beginning in 1947, Vogel presented New York City film enthusiasts with regular programs of independent films, chosen and arranged dialectically so as to foreground the distinctiveness of the individual films and create a “meta-film” that would spark sustained thinking about cinema and its function in society. Vogel’s sense of what a film society might be owed something to his childhood in Vienna where he was a member of a film society (until Hitler made it impossible for him to stay in Austria), and to his early contact with Frank Stauffacher, whose Art in Cinema film society began invigorating the Bay Area film scene in 1946. But from the beginning, Cinema 16 was infused with Vogel’s commitment to a particularly wide range of independent cinema and with his determination to find and screen what conventional film audiences would find challenging, a commitment that quickly required Cinema 16 to become a private membership organization so as to avoid the then-stringent New York State censorship laws.
From 1947 until 1963, Vogel (with the assistance first of Marcia Vogel, and later, Jack Goelman) looked at thousands of films, searching for individual works that would productively subvert the film expectations of Cinema 16’s growing membership. At its height Cinema 16 boasted five thousand members, including many of the cultural movers and shakers in New York City, and it became a major inspiration for what developed into a nationwide network of film societies that looked to Vogel’s programming for ideas, and by the fifties, depended on Cinema 16’s distribution of otherwise unavailable films. Cinema 16 was a landmark moment in public film exhibition (Cinema 16 was, like any public movie theater, open to anyone who could afford the reasonable cost of a membership: $16 for 16 performances).
Vogel assumed that because the commercial cinema’s mission is to make the maximum number of viewers happy and complacent, his mission was to attack complacency wherever he found it. The audiences that assembled for Cinema 16 programs represented a considerable range of politics and aesthetic preferences. While Vogel has always identified himself as a leftist and a modernist, he frequently programmed films that were sure to offend those in tune with his political and/or aesthetic sensibilities: Cinema 16 was an equal opportunity offender. Nevertheless, those who were annoyed by the aesthetics of the new avant-garde films Vogel was showing, those who were bored with the social realist documentaries Cinema 16 presented, and those who were shocked by the sexuality of some films or by the political viewpoints of others continued to renew their memberships.
By 1963 the film exhibition landscape had changed and was continuing to change. Some of the kinds of films that, early on, had been audience lures at Cinema 16 were now increasingly available in public theaters, at screening venues that had developed to service aficionados of avant-garde filmmaking, and even on television. As these outlets opened up, Cinema 16 lost its ability to attract members at a price that could support the film society, until Vogel could see no way to continue. Cinema 16’s final program was presented in May, 1963. That same year, Vogel was asked to become co-director (along with Richard Roud) of the New York Film Festival at the then-new Lincoln Center, a position he held until 1968. Vogel left Lincoln Center to become a faculty member at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where he taught film history and theory, and continued to present public programs at the Annnenberg Cinematheque, which he established.
During the seventeen years when he ran Cinema 16, Vogel developed a habit of making notes on each film he saw and filing these notes so they could be accessed later on – a necessary procedure so that he could intelligently select the few dozen films there was time to present during a particular exhibition season. Vogel’s dual habit of seeing many films and making careful notes on each of them continued even once Cinema 16 ceased operation. This habit would in time make Film as a Subversive Art possible, once Vogel decided to become a writer as well as a programmer. Of course, during the Cinema 16 years, Vogel had regularly written blurbs for the Cinema 16 brochures, program notes for individual presentations, and, from time to time, essays on film programming and on the social importance of independent cinema. And for some years, he had thought about using his experiences with independent film as the basis for a book. But it was not until he mentioned the idea to his cousin, Lord George Weidenfeld (of the British publishing house, Weidenfeld and Nicolson), and saw Weidenfeld’s enthusiasm about the idea, that Vogel set to work on the project.
During the early 1970s, Vogel wrote Film as a Subversive Art using a general procedure reminiscent of his programming at Cinema 16. The book required him to select those films that seemed most significant as subversions of conventional expectation and then organize them into a coherent ongoing experience. Of course, while the book he envisioned could accommodate far more films than a year of Cinema 16 programming – in the end, several hundred – these had to be chosen from the thousands of films Vogel had seen and described in his notes. Having labored over his selections, Vogel set about arranging his comments about cinema and about particular films into an overall presentation. Whereas most scholarly books adhere to a form that has become nearly as conventional as the various genres of conventional cinema, Film as a Subversive Art employs a highly unusual organization. Each chapter begins with a brief theoretical consideration of a particular dimension of film’s capacity for subverting personal and societal complacency, and is followed by a series of brief comments on a set of films, chosen and arranged in more or less alphabetical order so as to reveal the considerable variety of ways in which a filmmaker can deal with this particular kind of cinematic subversion. Each chapter is profusely illustrated with imagery from the films, and each image includes a brief, but informative and analytical caption.
On its dedication page, Film as a Subversive Art includes a brief “Author’s Apologia” in which Vogel first asks forgiveness for whatever limitations the reader might find in his writing, and then makes two theoretical statements:
- A still is not a film. It lacks the dimensions of time and movement – indispensible components of film art – and represents only a small fraction of a single second of a given motion picture.
- Words are not the best way to deal with a visual medium.
That he apologizes for the limitations of stills, even before he indicates his reservations about the utility of words when it comes to the visual arts, reveals Vogel’s fundamental commitment to the visual. This commitment is reflected in the experience that Film as a Subversive Art creates for readers, or really, readers/viewers. While there must be some who read the book from front to back, my guess is that most people approach Film as a Subversive Art in a manner unusual for a scholarly book. The imagery Vogel uses is generally so arresting – even at times, shocking – that readers are immediately confronted and engaged, and then find their way into Vogel’s three-leveled verbal text as a way of coming to terms with what they’ve seen. Fortunately, Vogel’s beautifully written essays, his perceptive discussions of individual films, and his useful captions do create a highly intelligent context.
Ultimately, the purpose of the unusual form of Film as a Subversive Art is not simply to dramatize Vogel’s breath of experience or his intellectual sophistication, but rather to demonstrate how cinema, and especially cinema scholarship, should function in the world. Vogel’s organization makes clear that the function of written film theory is to deliver the reader back to cinema, to the complexities of accomplished individual films, and to the social experience of film-going. Vogel is not primarily interested in compiling information about particular films or in assembling theoretical conjectures about cinema; he is interested in engaging readers/viewers so thoroughly that they will seek out, or even better, will create, opportunities for enjoying not just the movies that allow us to escape the pressures of our lives for a couple of hours on a weekend, but those moving-image experiences that can help us to live more completely, to know the world more thoroughly, and to function as more responsible citizens of humanity.
The decision to make Film as a Subversive Art easily available once again could not have come at a more appropriate moment. For one thing, while many of the films described and illustrated in Film as a Subversive Art are reasonably familiar at least to aficionados of independent cinema, a good many others will be as new to contemporary filmgoers as they were to Cinema 16 audiences. And since new moving-image technologies have been making the older 16mm technology (the name, Cinema 16, of course, was a reference to 16mm films) an increasingly endangered species, Vogel’s descriptions and imagery may provide a valuable wake-up call for those determined to see the most interesting independent 16mm films safely to the next generation. It was Vogel’s original mission to provide accomplished films with audiences and vice versa; my hope is that the re-publication of Film as a Subversive Art will help to revive this mission.
Equally important, the exhibition scene for independent film, especially for forms of cinema that subvert convention, has nearly disappeared. A few museums in major cities make a range of inventive programming available to an ill-informed public, and a network of “micro-cinemas” has evolved to provide opportunities for some independent filmmakers to tour with their work. But for the most part, there is little energy around alternative cinema; it is as if we are waiting for a new Vogel to appear on the scene and instigate a revival of serious moving-image spectatorship. There is no new Vogel as yet, but the reappearance of Film as a Subversive Art gives this eternal optimist hope that the original Vogel, as he is expressed in this remarkable book, may – once again – be able to instigate a new recognition of how entertaining and informative, and transformative, the public experience of the full range of cinema can be.
From the C T Editions reprint edition (2005) of Film as a Subversive Art
© Scott MacDonald
All rights reserved by the original copyright holders